How to Build Student Agency in 2020

As technology permeates all aspects of work and life, the skills needed to be successful are evolving. However, simply having in-depth technical knowledge isn’t sufficient and just being equipped with soft, transferable life skills stops one from holistically applying them. More important is establishing a balance that will incorporate critical aspects from both ends of the spectrum under the broader umbrella of digital skills.

One desirable quality that employers are looking for in future candidates is the ability to take the initiative. In other words, this means having student agency. The World Economic Forum describes taking the initiative as a 21st Century Skill. I believe it is one with the ability to blend the hard and soft skills that students need to succeed.

Eric Sheninger defines student agency as:

Student agency is about empowering kids to own their learning (and school) through greater autonomy. It is driven by choice, voice, and advocacy.

Imagine the kind of professionals we would see if students were encouraged to own their learning, make decisions, take responsibility for their choices, or speak up when they want to learn more. Indeed, most of them will be agile, adaptable, curious, extremely resourceful, and entrepreneurial. 

So the question is now,  how do you develop agency in students? While there isn’t a single correct method, I can share some examples that have come across through my work with schools globally.

Give Teachers Agency

Teachers are the torchbearers of transformation in a classroom and the school. Give them the opportunity, time, and resources to break away from the shackles of a highly structured curriculum and encourage them to experiment. When teachers are empowered, the students will reap the benefits.

Involve Students in the Decision Making Process

A school I worked with introduced “drop-in labs,” Students could use the computer labs for their work without teacher supervision for two hours after school. To ensure the students are using their time and the school’s resources appropriately and effectively, the students co-created the usage guidelines for themselves and shared them with the school. This strategy made the learning process authentic and developed ownership from the beginning. Ultimately students are the benefactors of this process but to make it work. They should buy into the outcome for increased student agency.

When Using Technology, Focus on Competencies and Skills Not Devices

When introducing a new device into the classroom, let the students “play” with it for some time before showing them how to use it. Devices come and go, but skills are evergreen. So instead of students becoming experts with a specific device, focus on their development of digital skills such as digital citizenship, content creation, data analysis, finding and authenticating information, storing and organizing information, and time management.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Where possible, introduce your students to activities or projects with open-ended questions. This idea ensures multiple endpoints, opportunities for discoveries, rapid learning, knowledge sharing, and experimentation. Another approach to this is giving students real-world problems and asking them to solve them with the tools and skills they have at their disposal.

Make Your Students Fall in Love With Learning

Learning is a nonlinear process in which no two people learn the same way or even within the same time frame. Please encourage your students to learn new skills and share their findings with their classmates. Improve student agency by showing appreciation for any new knowledge or skills a student brings to the classroom. Finally and most importantly, reward effort and experimentation and do not penalize failure.

Encourage Playing and Tinkering

Whether it’s a digital device, watercolors in an art lesson, or lines of code – let your students play without supervision. Building time for unstructured play in every subject helps students understand the subject matter, materials, and resources. In some cases, it also helps them discover new things about themselves or the subject.

Be a Coach or Facilitator of Learning

As a teacher, if you change the nature of your classroom to be more student agency-driven, your role will also transform. You don’t need to be the ‘sage on the stage,’ but you will become more like a coach encouraging your students to complete their project or nudge them in the right direction with actionable insights.

Rethink Assessments

Students cannot assess their transformed teaching experience with a traditional written exam or a quiz. Meaning that to measure student learning, you will need variety and distribute the assessments over the entire activity instead of giving it only at the end.

How do you try to develop student agency in your classroom? Have you tried any of the points suggested above? I’d love to learn and hear from you. You may reach me at

about Mo
Mo is the Head of Learning Experience. He is an aeronautical engineer who found his calling in education and lifelong learning.
He helps to integrate technology programs of learning through professional development training, coaching, and classroom visits. He also manages our Customer Support, QA, and Performance team in the Philippines.

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